Roman Catholicism: Institutionalized Infallibility

The foundational issue in the debates between Roman Catholics and Protestants is authority. God has placed numerous authorities over us as Christians. Husbands have a level of authority over their wives. Parents have authority over children. Masters/employers have authority over slaves/employees. Elders have authority over the congregation. The issue is not authority itself. The question is the nature of that authority. No authority on earth is absolute or infallible. Rome believes her authority to be infallible on the main issues of doctrine and practice. This does not mean that her priests and bishops cannot sin, but rather that when the Roman Catholic Church speaks with authority she cannot err. This presents numerous problems, which we will get to in a minute. Here are some relevant quotes from the RCC (Roman Catholic Catechism).

“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s Successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ ‘ For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (p.234) Note here that the Pope is to be unhindered in his work. On a practical level that means what Nathan did to David cannot be done to the Pope. The Pope is above being called to repentance. The irony is that the “First Pope,” Peter was called to repentance at least three times. (Matthew 16:22-23, Matthew 26:68-75 with John 21, and Galatians 2:11-14)

“The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ…Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” (p. 235)

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful…he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals. The infallibilty promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. (p. 235)

Finally, after a lengthy discussion of the Magisterium and its purpose, the RCC says this, “The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of Divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, and observed.” (p. 492)

The errors associated with this doctrine of infallibility are many.

First, Paul specifically says in Romans 11:16-21 that the church at Rome must be careful. If God could cut off the natural branches (Jews) then he most certainly can cut off those who were grafted in (Gentiles). The great irony here is that this is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church says cannot happen. She cannot be cut off.

Second, there is no indication in the Scriptures that infallibility was given to anyone. Now Paul wrote infallibly when inspired by the Spirit, but even he made it clear that he could fail. (I Cor. 9:27) He never said that he was infallible and thus above reproof. Also Peter is plainly rebuked three times in Scripture, with one of those coming after Pentecost. I have never read a Roman Catholic apologist on this, but I would be interested in knowing what they do with this.

Third, what does this doctrine do to the idea of sin in the Bible? It is clear that all men are sinners. (Psalm 51, Romans 1-3, I John 1:8, etc.) But now we have a man who cannot sin in certain situations and a group of men who cannot sin in certain situations. The RCC is not simply saying the past councils were right or the Pope said some things that were correct, but rather it is impossible for these men to sin when they are in certain settings. Scripture is against this idea. All men are sinners and in any given situation a man or group of men can sin. History as well as Scripture bears this out.

Finally, the greatest problem is that they have institutionalized this view of infallibility. There is no doubt in my mind that there are Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal pastors/ministers who deep down believe they can do no wrong. Of course, they would not say that, but they still believe it. They pontificate from the pulpit with bluster and with very little accountability. The difference between these pastors and the RC position is that the RC position is official and in writing. We all know how hard it is to change “tradition” whatever it may be. It is especially difficult when that tradition is one of the defining marks of your organization. For the RCs to change their view on infallibility would require not just a shifting of doctrine here or there, but a wholesale turning from centuries of teaching. I do not see that happening. It would require too much repenting, which I am not sure the Catholic leaders are ready to do.